Serving God in the middle of a drug war
I’ll never forget the night I stayed in a hotel full of police officers. Back in 2011 was the first time, but it was not the last. I knew that 50 federal officers slept in the rooms near mine. Their 20 patrol cars were parked in the hotel’s parking lot, along with a lot of special equipment to fight the drug cartels in Tamaulipas, in northeast Mexico.
I was there to visit Seventh-day Adventist churches and make presentations about Christian education. The previous week newspaper headlines were filled with reports about finding 145 bodies buried in unmarked graves in San Fernando, 100 miles south of the Texas border near the Gulf of Mexico.
People I saw in the streets were fearful; you could see it in their faces, concerned about an uncertainty that was almost palpable. They hoped the war between the police and the narcos, or drug gangs, would soon end. It was common to hear stories about extortion, robbery, and kidnapping against all kinds of people, rich and poor; there was no difference. That’s why many Mexican businesspeople and professionals were buying houses and investing their money in Texas.
This area has been an old and important route for illegal drugs between Mexico and the United States. Indeed, many illegal activities in the area, such as smuggling and human trafficking, are practiced all the way from Central America to the United States border. Lots of people trying to cross the border illegally means lots of money for organized criminals, some of whom make their living as hired assassins.
In the past people did it just to make some extra money; when they no longer wanted to do it, they could leave. But now many of them have no option: they continue killing people or they get killed.
Crime has globalized also. Some countries provide money, weapons, and consumers. In a very long supply chain, other countries provide production, transportation routes, and distribution networks, including gangs that try to open new drug markets. Unfortunately, more people are involved in this kind of business than we would like to admit, on both sides of the border.
The current drug war in northeast Mexico began with a split between the Cartel del Golfo and the Zetas, the cartel’s hired assassins. Now both organized crime syndicates fight for control of drug routes and towns. Currently more than 30,000 people have lost their lives. Here in Tamaulipas, you can see the Mexican Army presence in the streets trying to keep the situation under control.
The Religious Element
A lot of narcos worship Santa Muerte (Our Lady of Holy Death), represented by a woman’s skeleton dressed with a cape. They believe she protects them from danger, and they stick the following message on their trucks and vans: “God protects me, but she cares for me.”
They make a covenant with Santa Muerte, looking for special care from her. A lot of altars dedicated to Santa Muerte are visible in the streets; figures representing her are sold in different places. You can also observe skull collars and inverted crosses for sale. A lot of deaths may be related to satanic rites, making this a spiritual war as well as a drug war.
Seventh-day Adventists have many churches around Tamaulipas and Nuevo Leon, another state in the area, where Montemorelos University is located. To this point, the church has lost a pastor and two young men, who were killed by mistake at the hands of cartels in Chihuahua in northern Mexico.
But in Tamaulipas you can see the importance of the Adventist faith being tested under severe conditions. We hear wonderful stories about faith and divine protection for pastors, literature evangelists, and lay members who continue their work of preaching the good news about Christ. Also, many people, including government leaders, ask church members to pray for them.
Recently the local churches of Ciudad Victoria, Tamaulipas, held a women’s ministry convention at the same hotel where I stayed. A supervising officer of the police who were also staying there approached the pastor and asked, “Will you pray for us?”
Pastor Daniel Eduardo Alvarez lives in Ciudad Victoria, Tamaulipas. He is
responsible for four congregations, and he visits them all. He says he always tries to travel during the day, never at night.
He remembers being stopped by a man one day who asked him to come to his house because he had many questions about the Bible. Pastor Alvarez went to his home, stayed there, and answered his questions. After two hours Alvarez drove home. When he arrived home, his cell phone rang. It was one of his church members. “Pastor, are you all right?”
“Yes, of course,” Alvarez said.
“We were worried because there was a shooting here just after the church service.”
“Yes, but I had to visit someone at his home. He kept me there because he had many questions about the Bible. I stayed with him about two hours.”
“He was an angel, Pastor. He helped you avoid the shooting!”
Looking for Something Better
Many people in these places want to hear about Jesus and His coming. Specifically, they want to know about the end-time, and if the Bible says something about the kind of situation in which they are living.
I met a young man I will call Peter. He was a former member of the Zetas. He spoke to me about his old life. I asked, “Why did you get involved with such people?”
“Because I wanted money and happiness,” he answered.
“Did you find them?”
“No; it’s a world you can’t imagine.”
“How did you get out of it?”
“One day I was in a truck with a huge drug load, and the image of my Adventist mother came to me. Then I heard God’s voice inviting me to leave that world. I answered, ‘But Lord, I can’t go now; You know these people.’
“Then God said, ‘Don’t worry about that; I will protect you.’ And in that precise moment I accepted the Lord and promised Him I would be a new man.”
“Are you aware that narcos do not allow their people just to leave their business?”
“Yes, I know.”
“And what do you intend to do about it?”
“That’s the Lord’s business. I gave my life to Him, and I will live the time He allows me.”
“What do you do now?”
“I preach the Lord’s Word to everyone, including assassins.”
“Yes, that’s what I live for. I know now that nothing else in life is more important than that.”
I was astonished by Peter’s story. He probably understands better than me the meaning of life. But I am a pastor, and he is a former drug cartel member. To live every day between life and death helps you better understand life’s meaning.
Back in the City
I finished my lecture about Adventist education in Ciudad Victoria, Tamaulipas. The next day I flew to Mexico City. During my flight I thought about the spiritual war we fight every day but rarely think about because of the many distractions we have in our lives.
When the plane landed, I was again in Mexico City, a postmodern city with culture, music, art, literature, academics, and secularism. There it is easy to focus on different, even good, things, and distract yourself from our main mission: to preach the gospel.
Was it a dream? Was that chaotic place with murders, prostitution, and illegal drugs part of my country?
Yes, it was; I was arriving from a war zone, where you have to live on your knees, where people ask you to pray for them, where society wants to hear about the end-time, a place where angels go around, and church members vividly see the power of God.
Back in the city, a secular place where God is apparently unnecessary, I risked forgetting those wonderful words spoken by Peter, who said: “Preaching is the only reason I live. I now know that nothing in life is more important than that.”
That was probably the best lesson I learned at the narco war zone.